Special Education

Are Black and Hispanic Students Identified for Special Education Too Often or Not Enough? Maybe It’s Both

By Christina A. Samuels — May 28, 2019 3 min read
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Are too many black and Hispanic students incorrectly diagnosed with disabilities and sent to special education classes, where they run the risk of receiving a substandard education? Federal policy is built around the idea that this problem of “disproportionality” exists and that school districts need to actively guard against it.

Newer research has countered the idea that some minority groups are overidentified for special education. Instead, this research states that black and Hispanic students are actually less likely to be enrolled in special education than white peers with similar academic achievement and behavior, meaning that those minority students may be missing out on the help they need to succeed.

Now, a new study, looking at a decade’s worth of student records in Florida, offers additional nuance to the debate.

The data links educational records to the birth records of every child born in the state between 1992 and 2002 for which kindergarten and 4th grade records were available—some 869,000 children. The researchers were able to control for a wealth of health and economic factors, such as birth weight, complications during delivery, the educational level of the mother, and language spoken at home. That means they could compare children who were similar in all factors except for their race or ethnicity.

The study showed that overall, black and Hispanic students are identified for special education at lower rates than white students who are otherwise similar to them. That fits in with the latest findings.

But where those students attend school seemed to play a large role. Black and Hispanic students were more likely to be identified with disabilities when they attended schools that had a mostly white population. But black and Hispanic students were substantially underidentified with disabilities when they attended schools where the student body was mostly black or Hispanic.

That trend was particularly evident for black children. For example, the researchers in this study found that a black 4th grader who attended a school that was more than 90 percent minority was 9 percentage points less likely to be identified for special education than a similar black student in a school that is mostly white. For black students, the difference was linked primarily to diagnoses of specific learning disabilities; for Hispanic students, the difference was connected to diagnoses of speech and language impairments.

A Deeper Look at Special Education Identification

The study, “School Segregation and Racial Gaps in Special Education Identification” was published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Studies published on NBER are circulated for discussion and comment, but have not been peer reviewed.

So what could this mean for school policy? The researchers were not able to tell, based on their data, whether minority students are being wrongly identified in mainly white schools, or being incorrectly passed over for identification in predominantly minority schools. There’s no number that indicates what the “correct” identification rate should be, said Scott Imberman, a professor of economics and education at Michigan State University and one of the study’s authors.

But the study offers some evidence that rules out economics alone as a cause of these disparities. In other words, it doesn’t appear that black students are underidentified at minority schools due to those schools being underresourced. The study found, for example, that black students were more likely to be identified as gifted in mostly minority schools than they were in mostly white schools. If resources alone were a problem, one might expect gifted rates at those schools to also be low.

With such a tangled web of possible causes and correlations, the findings suggest that lawmakers should rethink current policy about special education bias, Imberman said.

“If we are going to use [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] to deal with disproportionality, do we want to be accounting for certain aspects of students’ background when we do that?” Imberman said. He believes the answer is yes, though right now, states are not required to make those kinds of calculations. And though this study looked only at Florida, it’s likely that there are similar complexities and complications in other states, he said.

“It may not work the exact same way [in other states], but it’s hard to believe that the complexity is not there,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.